By Jan David Winitz, President & founder
Claremont Rug Company
PART 1 of 2
Primarily woven in the villages and encampments of Northwest Persian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, 19th and turn-of-the 20th century rugs and runners using undyed camelhair have always had an enthusiastic following among our clients, who find myriad uses for them in their homes.
Many place them in gallery halls or great rooms, as their neutral hues and often more sparse patterns provide an effective counterbalance to the large-scale designs and multi-colored palette of many contemporary paintings. Also, Camelhair’s color spectrum, a surprisingly wide range of earth-tones from blonde to tan, wheat, walnut, and even chocolate brown, effectively lightens and adds distinction to smaller areas or hallways.
As remarkably little can be found about Camelhair rugs in the rug literature, for this article, I am relying primarily on the many interviews with the various tribal elders I was connected to while they were still alive and my experience of working with the rugs themselves over the past almost half-century. I find the best of these rugs extraordinarily intriguing artistically, as the use of this undyed natural fiber amplifies the weavers’ folk-art expression.
Camelhair rugs stem mainly from the villages of Bakshaish, Serab, and Malayer and the weavers of the immense Kurdistan province, including the rugs from the town of Bijar. Weavers from many other Persian and Caucasian styles also occasionally created rugs with precious undyed camelhair. I will delineate some of the distinctive attributes of the major camelhair weaving groups below.
Top-level 19th-century Bakshaish camelhair carpets are awe-inspiring and incredibly inventive, and just like their all-wool counterparts, are quite hard to find and widely sought after. The oldest ones offer the most spontaneous and elemental rug designs and the softest color palettes.
From this group, those woven before 1870 most often evoke a decidedly tribal context with shield, dragon, and unusual tree patterns. In the fourth quarter of the 19th century, designs became somewhat more stylized and botanical, with more saturated palettes of color. One of the most memorable Bakshaish formats presents a grand, intentionally asymmetrical central medallion and broad, startling mid-tone blue-toned corner pieces that often contain dragon motifs. Spellbinding camelhair fields with “Tree of Life” or “Garden of Paradise” allover designs are desirable among collectors.
The natural light to rich browns of camelhair combined with Bakshaish’s renowned spontaneously drawn artistry conveys an emotional stratum that is innately familiar and, at the same time, have a “never seen before” quality. Camelhair has this effect in general but seems especially suited to the Bakshaish tradition. One can still find Bakshaish camelhair rugs in area sizes, corridor or runner shapes, room size, or even oversize in quite limited numbers.
South of Heriz and a bustling carpet market center for all the tribal and village weavings being created in the 19th century in this pocket of Azerbaijan, Serab claims a prominent place in camelhair rug creation. It is the only weaving tradition that used camelhair more often than sheep’s wool for their rugs.
The Serab rugmakers’ particular contribution is the use of camelhair and undyed ivory sheep’s wool to create stunning understated field patterns, much like damask, in a great variety of designs, imbuing a geometric elegance to their weavings. Upon this intricately woven and mesmerizing background, most often single or multiple diamond-shaped medallions float, evoking a sense of quiet grandeur. Serabs are often extraordinarily finely knotted for rugs with geometric designs. For these reasons, our clients choose Serabs as companions in combination with more formal carpets, especially where a runner or gallery carpet is needed. As most town and city weaving centers virtually never wove runners and corridor carpets, elegant Serabs are the natural choice for halls and passageways.
Celebrating the seemingly endless tonal variations of camelhair, antique Serab rugs and runners are often framed with a wide guard stripe in unadorned camelhair, displaying this fiber’s constant striation of tonalities. In some cases, these areas would reflect the tribal notion of “sprinkling,” where tiny motifs playfully dot the expansive borders.
Serab artisans wove a preponderance of the inspired corridor carpets (i.e., rugs longer than twice their widths, known in the field as “kelegis”), as well as somewhat narrow room sizes. Interestingly, they also occasionally wove sumptuous oversizes and palace-sizes.
A Bit of History
Camels changed the course of history by the 8th century B.C. As the historian, S. Frederick Starr writes in “Lost Enlightenment,” the camel replaced the wheel and the ox-drawn cart in Central Asia. Finding the two-humped Bactrian camel superior to the Dromedary, merchants of the period discovered this animal’s capacity to carry up to 500 pound of goods. As camels are significantly stronger and adaptable to a broader range of climate conditions, they were considerably more valuable than horses. Caravans owned by wealthy merchants as long as 1000 camels could transport the equivalent of a 10-12 car freight train. Soon the Central Asian desert, traversed by hundreds then thousands of caravans, became the site of the wealthiest cities in the world for several hundred years.
In Part Two, I will continue our tour of the camelhair weaving styles and discuss the tribal people’s high regard for this lanky animal.
View Antique Camelhair Rugs Now Available Here.